How to be a (successful) freelancer

 

The museum workforce is changing. In my 20 years in the profession there has been a clear shift away from permanent jobs to fixed term or temporary roles, freelance working and the dreaded zero hours contracts. This shift is very likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as sector redundancies grow and the number of secure jobs dwindles.  It’s very likely that anyone starting out now will be freelance at some point in their career, either through choice like me – I first went freelance in 2004 because I wanted to follow my own interests and have more control over my working life – or as a stopgap in between jobs.

 

It’s quite simple to freelance. All you need to do to cover the legal basics is register with HMRC and complete an annual tax return. Being a successful freelancer is another matter. I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject but I have been around a while and I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned.

   

1. Get the practicalities sorted out 

There are many ways to freelance: you can work as a sole trader, or establish a limited company or partnership. Either way, make sure you're registered appropriately with HMRC and know what you have to do to pay taxes and operate your business legally. Get an accountant – they will save you time, hassle and money – and an online profile so potential clients can find you easily. Get insurance - public liability is a minimum, but many clients will ask for professional indemnity as well and it will give you peace of mind. Have a designated work space. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at  home, a rented office or a hot-desking setup, as long as you can concentrate without distractions and close the door on work when you're done.

 

2. Clarify what you’re going to offer, and who for

Work out what your skills are, what it is you really want to do with your time, and who might pay you to do it. Refine it down into a quick 30-second summary of what you offer. This is sometimes called the ‘elevator pitch’- a terrible term, but basically, how would you summarise what you do between floors to someone you’d met in a lift? This might vary depending on the audience: for example, some days I help museums reach new audiences through research and consultation, or I might  curate compelling and meaningful exhibitions, or create evidence based strategic plans that help cultural organisaitons win funding. How specialist or general your offer is will be up to you, but whatever it is, make sure you can summarise it quickly if you’re asked.

 

3. Think like a business owner

The most difficult thing about starting to freelance is the mental shift between being a person who works in the cultural sector and someone running a business. There are many aspects to this - pitching for work, pricing your time, marketing yourself and planning for the peaks and troughs - but they all involve a different mindset to the one you had an employee. Most of the tips in this post are related to this point. The best advice I was given when I started out was to manage your cashflow. A lot of small businesses fail not because they’re unprofitable, but because their income and outgoings don’t match up. If you’re not managing your cashflow you’re not managing your business and you do need to actively manage your business if you want it to thrive. Put a third of what you’re paid in a savings account to cover your tax bill, and always chase late payers. The Prompt Payment Code and the payontime website have guidance for how to tackle companies that don't pay their bills. 

   

4. Network 

This is really important, especially when you're starting out. You don't necessarily have to get out and about (and at the time of writing we're under Covid restrictions so options are limited), but there are plenty of online networks and it's good to get out in person occasionally. In my view a Twitter presence is essential if you're self employed, as is a profile on LinkedIn. Don't be afraid to approach people whose work you find interesting. At the very least you might have a useful conversation, and it might result in new work - I once won a project after someone I'd chatted to briefly at a conference 18 months earlier remembered me and invited me to tender for it. Recently I've been contacted by several early career professionals who have found me on Twitter or seen my name at virtual conferences and events, and I've had some valuable conversations as a result. 

   

5. Collaborate 

Consultancy can be a solitary game. It's important to work with other people once in a while and it means that you can offer potential clients a broader, more diverse range of experience and skills. I have the most fun, and do the most interesting work, when I get together with other people to work on contracts that none of us could have done alone. Museum Freelance is a great network for like-minded freelancers to find each other.

   

6. Know your worth 

Pricing is one of the most difficult aspects of being freelance. There are a lot of variables that feed into how you price your work, or more commonly your time – how specialist your particular skill set and knowledge base is; the scale and complexity of the contract; what the client can afford; and how competitive the market is. Don’t sell yourself short. If the rate you want to negotiate is too high you can always bring it down, but a client is never, ever going to say ‘how about we add £50 to your day rate?’. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a contract that is offering too little. Pricing low to get work might be OK in the short term but you will soon find you’re chasing your tail in a cycle of low rates and overwork. Clients can have a very limited awareness of how freelance finances work, as the recent Museum Freelance research outlined, so you might need to help them understand how you've worked out your costs. 

   

7. Know what you cost

The other aspect of pricing your time is know how much it costs for you to do what you do – your overheads.  Everyone’s costs differ but there are a number of basic elements you need to take into account. Off the top of my head, you should be thinking about these:

 

  • Utilities – heat, light, electricity, phone, broadband, mobile contract etc.
  • Professional fees – accountancy, insurances, legal advice.
  • Equipment – your computer, printer, phone, software subscriptions, any specialist tools and equipment you need. 
  • Time spent on essential tasks needed to run your business – invoicing, managing your finances, pitching for work and going for interviews, marketing, networking, training and professional development, conferences, and so on.
  • Any expenses that are not covered by specific contracts.
  • Saving into a pension.
  • Holidays and time off sick. The first should happen, the second definitely will at some point!

 

Work out your annual overheads and divide that figure by the number of days you expect to work, taking into account the holidays and other unpaid time commitments outlined above. Don’t expect to do five paid days of work a week unless you want to be exhausted!

   

8. Invest in yourself 

This doesn’t always mean money but it does mean time. It makes me cross when I hear consultants and freelancers complain that they can't afford to go to conferences, or training days, or events. Personally, I can't afford not to. I owe it to myself and my clients to keep my professional knowledge and awareness up to date and while a certain amount of that can be done online, there's no substitute for getting out of the office from time to time.

   

9. Look after your reputation 

There is a saying that if people are happy with your work they’ll tell you, but if they’re not happy they will tell everybody. I think there’s an element of truth in that. In freelancing track record is really important and you’re only as good as people say you are. My main focus is making sure the client is happy with the work I do. Getting feedback can be really difficult – particularly negative feedback, because it’s a difficult thing to give and people don’t like doing it – but it’s really important to keep checking back with the person employing you to make sure you’re on the right track. Don’t assume that no news is good news or that the way you worked on your last project will suit the current organisation you’re working with. Always ask.

   

Freelance work isn’t for everyone. It requires a lot of self-motivation, initiative and energy and you need to think laterally about how your skills and experience can apply to someone else’s business. There are pitfalls – it can be easy to fall into the trap of chasing contracts rather than doing work you really enjoy and there is a ‘feast or famine’ aspect to self employment that isn’t unique to museums. However, if it suits you, it can be a great way of getting to work on some really interesting projects with a diverse range of organisations and taking control of your working life.